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Stuart Gordon, legend of off-Loop theater and horror films, dies at 72

When current mystery novelist and former Reader theater critic Lenny Kleinfeld (aka Bury St. Edmund) first met Stuart Gordon in 1968, it was at a rehearsal for Gordon’s student production of Peter Pan at the University of Wisconsin. But instead of trafficking in J.M. Barrie‘s Victorian sentimentality, Gordon’s version reflected the upheavals that had ripped through Madison and the rest of the country in the late 60s.

In a 2013 entry for the crime writers’ blog “Murder Is Everywhere,” Kleinfeld described the production thusly: “Peter Pan was now a free-spirited hippie dude. His sidekick, Tinkerbell, was a hairy guy in a fringed leather shirt who dealt acid—I mean dispensed fairy dust, which sent Wendy and her brothers on a trip to Neverland, where the Lost Boys were a commune of semi-feral teens, the Indians were African-American Black Power radicals, and Captain Hook wasn’t a pirate, he was a cop, as were his men, who wore leather jackets, helmets and aviator shades.” Kleinfeld was also in the cast “despite the fact I’m one of the worst actors in the English-speaking world. Stuart, no fool, cast me in the role of a dialog-free spear-carrier. More precisely, a gun-, baton-, and tear-gas-carrying riot cop.”

The show also featured six naked women dancing. When one of Kleinfeld’s college pals, a student photographer who was also a stringer for the wire services, sent out photos of the women au naturel, the subsequent uproar ended up shutting down the show and getting Gordon arrested on obscenity charges (later dropped). 

Gordon, who died Tuesday at 72 of multiple organ failure, brought that same countercultural aesthetic and tongue-in-cheek love of blood, guts, and sex to Chicago’s nascent off-Loop theater scene. After founding Madison’s Broom Street Theater, the Lane Tech grad returned to his hometown in the early 1970s and established the groundbreaking Organic Theater Company along with his wife, Carolyn Purdy-Gordon, who had been one of the dancing sextet in Peter Pan. Among the many notable productions in the company’s history was the comic-book-inspired sci-fi epic serial Warp! Cowritten by Kleinfeld, it starred André De Shields, who won the Tony Award last year for his performance in Hadestown. (Warp! had a very brief—four days—Broadway run in 1973.) 

The company also had hit productions of  David Mamet‘s Sexual Perversity in Chicago and Bleacher Bums, created by the ensemble from Joe Mantegna’s original concept about a bunch of long-suffering Cubs fans hanging out at Wrigley one afternoon, back when afternoon baseball games were the only ones in town on the north side. (A company with the Organic name still exists today, but the name is all it has in common with Gordon’s troupe.)

In his 2004 book, A Theater of Our Own: A History and a Memoir of 1,001 Nights in Chicago, former Tribune theater critic Richard Christiansen noted that a “joyous, zestful celebration of theater permeated all of the Organic’s best work.”

Most people outside Chicago probably know Gordon best from his film career. His 1985 inaugural feature, the H.P. Lovecraft-inspired Re-Animator, put him on the map as a cult filmmaker—even though Reader critic Dave Kehr dismissed it as “ludicrous and inept.”

Gordon’s long horror film resume includes 1986’s From Beyond and a 1991 adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Pit and the Pendulum. But like a lot of people who got their start in off-Loop theater, he retained a soft spot for those salad days. In addition to being active in Los Angeles theater, Gordon directed and produced the 2005 film version of Mamet’s 1982 play Edmond (which premiered at the Goodman), as well as the 1998 film version of Ray Bradbury’s The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit, a comedy about five Latino men that he had directed for Organic. It was, as Christiansen noted, “Organic’s one and only production of a script that it had not originated,” adding “Gordon brought it to the stage with a joyous sense of brotherly unity amid uproarious diversity.”

The company produced much of their work at the now-gone Leo Lerner Theatre of the Uptown Center of Hull House, which was originally under the aegis of Chicago off-Loop pioneer Bob Sickinger and, after Organic, became the longtime home of Black Ensemble Theater. When the building at 4520 N. Beacon was bought by a developer in 2013, Gordon led the fight to save it, enlisting other onetime Chicago theater vets on the west coast such as William Petersen, William H. Macy, Jim Belushi, Mantegna, and George Wendt. When he lost that battle, he sent a message to the supporters, reading in part “my sweet wife reminded me of something I used to say back in the old days: that a theater is not a building. A theater is people.”

For Chicago theater, Gordon remains one of the most influential people in putting the experimental off-Loop scene on the national map. In Mark Larson‘s 2019 Ensemble: An Oral History of Chicago Theater, Goodman’s longtime artistic director Robert Falls notes, “Stuart Gordon was actually a major, major influence on me. Organic’s work was not rooted in realism and was a full-out, balls-to-the-wall, gonzo performance style. Not that anything in my work goes in that direction, but he was demonstrating to me what a Chicago theater company was, could be.” Blair Thomas, cofounder of the late spectacle-based Redmoon Theater, recalled to Larson, “Stuart Gordon had a maxim, ‘Put on the stage what you want to see on the stage.'”

For his part, Gordon told Larson, “We took a chance on the possibility of doing theater for a living. That was one of the basic ideas of the Organic: we wanted to be able to make enough money that we wouldn’t have to do other jobs, we wouldn’t have to be driving cabs or waiting tables. We’d be paying people enough to live on. And we were able to do that in Chicago.”

Gordon is survived by his wife, daughters Suzanna, Jillian, and Margaret Gordon; four grandchildren; and his brother, David George Gordon.  v

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